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The failure to capture Hardee.

by Alexander Robert Chisolm, Colonel, C. S. A.
When General Sherman in his march across Georgia had passed through Milledgeville, General Beauregard was hastily ordered from Mississippi to Charleston, there to assume command of the department then commanded by General Hardee,1 who had urgently asked for his presence.

When he arrived in Charleston Sherman vas close to Savannah, the end of his march to the sea. Here he lost an easy and brilliant opportunity to capture, with that city, Hardee's entire command of about 10,000 men. In his “Memoirs” he writes (Vol. II., p. 204) that General Slocum wanted to transfer a whole corps to the South Carolina bank of the Savannah River, the object being to cut off Hardee's retreat. At that time Hardee's only line of retreat was at Screven's Ferry to a causeway, [680] over two miles in length, on the South Carolina bank. Without a pontoon-bridge or other means of getting away, he was relying only on three very small steamboats. The only troops he had on the Carolina bank were a small force of light artillery and Ferguson's brigade of Wheeler's cavalry, numbering not more than 1000 men. At this time Beauregard's Military division of the West did not embrace the department of General Hardee, although he had authority and discretion there, in an emergency. Therefore he had gone to Charleston on December 7th, with a view of saving and concentrating the scattered Confederate forces in that region for some effective action against Sherman. He telegraphed Hardee (December 8th), advising him to hold Savannah as long as practicable, but under no circumstances to risk the garrison, and to be ready for withdrawal to a junction with Major-General Samuel Jones at Pocotaligo, South Carolina. At Hardee's urgent request Beauregard went to Savannah on the morning of the 9th. Finding no means prepared for the contingency of evacuation he directed the immediate construction of a pontoon-bridge, with the plantation rice-flats (collected at my suggestion) for pontoons. These, moored by old guns and car-wheels for anchors, were covered with flooring supplied by pulling down the wharves and wooden buildings. After giving instructions as to the plan of operations, Beauregard returned to Charleston, Instructions were also given for the best feasible defense of the causeway and road from Screven's Ferry. On the 14th Hardee telegraphed to Beauregard of the enemy's movements, his own doubts and his desire to have specific orders; and on the 15th he again telegraphed, urging Beauregard to return and determine the actual time for the evacuation and junction with Jones. Beauregard (whom I accompanied) went to Savannah on the night of the 16th, in my wagon, running the gauntlet of Foster's batteries near Pocotaligo so as to save the railroad from obstruction by an unlucky shot at his train, and traversing by like conveyance the distance along which the railroad had been broken by Sherman near Savannah, my wagon and pair of horses being transported between the breaks in freight-cars. He found the pontoon-bridge only about one-third constructed, some of Wheeler's cavalry having destroyed a number of rice-flats collected, supposing they had been gathered by Sherman for the crossing of the river. But the work was prosecuted with such vigor by the chief engineer, Colonel John G. Clarke, in person, that by daylight of the 19th General Beauregard found it all but completed, stretching from the city to Hutchinson's Island, over which a causeway was built; thence to Pennyworth Island, where another causeway was laid; thence across the Back River to a causeway that led over the swamps to the main-land of the Carolina bank. Beauregard ordered the movement to be made that night, though accident delayed it until the night of the 20th, when by this route — the only exit from SavannahHardee was safely withdrawn, with field-artillery, baggage, and stores, and the bridge then destroyed. This was one of the neatest achievements of the war, rivaling in decision, resource, and skill the evacuations of Corinth and of Morris Island by the same commander.

But meanwhile, cautiously leaving his 60,000 men concentrated on the Georgia bank of the river, General Sherman had gone in person around by the sea to Hilton Head in order to procure the assistance of Foster's army for the investment of Savannah from the Carolina bank. It is clear that, had Slocum's suggestion been adopted, or had even the single brigade of his corps that had crossed the river above Savannah been vigorously pushed against the thin line of Confederate pickets covering this causeway, all escape from Savannah must have been cut off. General Sherman saw his mistake too late, and, in his letter of December 24th, 1864, he excuses himself to Halleck: “I feel somewhat disappointed at Hardee's escape, but really am not to blame. I moved as quickly as possible to close up the Union cause-way, but intervening obstacles were such that, before I could get troops on the road, Hardee had slipped out.” The real point is that, having an overwhelming force, his movement should have been a prompt and vigorous one to the rear of Savannah, and not a voyage to Hilton Head to borrow forces from General Foster.2 As to “intervening obstacles,” they consisted of some light artillery and a very thin line of cavalry of which, in his letters, he saw fit to write in the most disparaging terms. In this case they seem to have sufficed to cover the retreat of about 10,000 men.

To estimate General Sherman's error we must here consider that the Confederate troops in Savannah formed the only substantial force then interposed, and the bulk of the only force afterward interposed, between him and Grant. From a military point of view, therefore, this failure was of importance. Beauregard had suggested to the Government a bold and rapid concentration of a portion of Lee's army with the forces that he was then assembling, in order to try a supreme and decisive blow against Sherman, and, if successful, then to concentrate all forces upon Grant. [681]

Advancing under difficulties.

1 Lieutenant-General W. J. Hardee was assigned to the command of the Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, on the 28th of September, 1864:, succeeding Major-General Samuel Jones.--editors.

2 In his “Memoirs,” Vol. II., p. 216, General Sherman explains his action at this time as follows:

On the 18th of December, at my camp by the side of the plank-road, eight miles back of Savannah, I received General Hardee's letter declining to surrender, when nothing remained but to assault. The ground was difficult, and, as all former assaults had proved so bloody, I concluded to make one more effort to completely surround Savannah on all sides, so as further to excite H ardee's fears, and in case of success to capture his whole army. We had already completely invested the place on the north, west, and south, but there remained to the enemy on the east the use of the old dyke or plank-road leading into South Carolina, and I knew that Hardee would have a pontoon-bridge across the river. On examining my maps I thought that the division of John P. Hatch, belonging to General Foster's command, might be moved from its then position at Broad River, by water, down to Bluffton, from which it could reach the plank-road, fortify and hold it, at some risk, of course, because i[ardee could avail himself of his central position to fall on this detachment with his whole army.

To carry out the purpose Sherman went to Hilton Head, and on the way back was met with the announcement that Hardee had evacuated Savannah.--editors.

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